How do we make a city sustainable?

Last night saw the second event organised by the Natural Capital Initiative, a joint partnership between the BES, the Institute of Biology and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The topic under discussion was ‘Sustainable Cities’, with high-profile speakers presenting their arguments before a large audience of policymakers, urban designers, ecologists, students and members of the public.

Dr. William Bird, a practising GP and Strategic Health Advisor to Natural England, opened proceedings by reminding the audience of the oft-overlooked health benefits of green spaces. This was a particularly valuable way of contextualising the ensuing debate, giving the lie to any idea that green spaces are simply an abstract indulgence of the well-off, and instead clearly demonstrating that greening a city is a human welfare issue. Numerous studies have shown that when we see green areas and trees our blood pressure decreases, our heart rate drops and our brainwaves change to relaxed alpha waves. As a result, global studies have shown a clear link between obesity levels and areas with fewer green spaces. People have also been shown to live longer if they live by green spaces, though intriguingly, this effect is particularly noticeable amongst the poorest sectors of society. Green spaces can therefore serve to close the currently-widening gap between rich and poor levels of health and life expectancy, further highlighting the fact that greening cities is an important welfare issue.

Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, harked back to the great reformers of the Victorian Age who worked on issues such as disease, poverty and labour conditions, pointing out that these problems were worked upon and largely solved in the cities. He argued that it is the same again today, with 70-80% of the world’s carbon emissions coming from cities, leading to the conclusion that if we can achieve sustainable urban environments, we can basically sort climate change. He saw local power generation as an important factor in achieving this, pointing out that there is still only one power station at present in the whole of London. As a high-profile politician with excellent networks, it was sad to hear him so pessimistic about the world’s current efforts to combat climate change. He also reminded us of the sobering point that whilst the UK could be dramatically affected by climate change, as an island nation in the temperate zone it will avoid the worst ravages of climate change- it is the poorest and least resilient in developing nations who in fact will be most affected.

Peter Wilder, a prominent landscape architect, meanwhile outlined the need for ‘green infrastructure’, such as biofiltration systems, and a return to stewardship, whilst Malcolm Smith, a director at Arup, highlighted the fact that retro-fitting is the main answer when it comes to looking for solutions. Despite our great attraction to the glamour and spectacle of the new, he argued that 95% of the city is out there already, and so any meaningful solution has to be focused on the comparatively unsexy work of making existing homes and offices more sustainable. Finally Lorna Walker, an urban design consultant, argued that it is imperative to remember that individual people are at the centre of any solution to greening a city, and that technological change cannot simply be relied upon. Rather, it is imperative to ensure that the population is engaged with rather that turned off by anti-climate change measures. She also added that in London we already have a great starting point from which we can lead by example- 37% of the capital is designated green space (and astonishingly, that figure does not include gardens), and there is plenty of potential for inspirational improvement given the right leadership.

A high quality and wide-ranging debate with the audience followed, after which drinks and nibbles, as well as some excellent posters from PhD students, provided a relaxed opportunity to discuss some of the evening’s issues and to meet with other relevant actors in the urban environment sector.

For more details on this and future events of the Natural Capital Initiative, please visit here.